corruption in sport in Australia

Play fair or play to win. The interests of an individual player versus the team. Bad leaders who get good results.

These are just some of the common ethical tensions occurring throughout elite Australian sport. And they lead to corruption.

The Ethics Centre undertook two high profile reviews of sporting organisations over the past 18 months, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) and Cricket Australia (CA).

Australian Olympic Committee

Our AOC review explored the comparison between sportsmanship and gamesmanship. Sportsmanship is the fair, honest and decent treatment of others in competition. Gamesmanship, on the other hand, is built on the principle that winning is everything. Athletes and coaches are encouraged to plot, ploy and bend the rules wherever possible in order to gain a competitive advantage over opponents.

Bridging the two approaches was problematic. It culminated in disenchantment, frustration and an organisational culture within AOC that neither represented the best of sport or organisational administration.

The Ethics Centre delivered a warts-and-all report with 17 recommendations, all of which were accepted.

Recent discussions with AOC reveal a major shift in the culture of the organisation over the last 12 months, under the leadership of CEO Matt Carroll and the head of people and culture, Amie Wallis. AOC staff need to be congratulated for their achievements.

Ball tampering and Cricket Australia

The other engagement was with Cricket Australia – a culture and governance review in response to the ball tampering incident in South Africa in March 2018, something that was clearly against the rules.

Initial attempts by players to conceal what they were doing was testament to this, but it wasn’t as clean cut as that. The incident seemed to represent an attack on something sacred to Australians. Many fans reacted as if they were personally afflicted.

Our subsequent interviews and surveys with CA staff, players, officials, sponsors and members of the public often explored the difference between sportsmanship and gamesmanship.

Comparisons were drawn between ball tampering, sledging and the underarm bowling incident in 1981 during a One Day International cricket match between Australia and New Zealand.

Sporting HR executives

We recently had the good fortunate of being invited to a discussion about such issues with a group of HR executives, representing some of the major professional sporting organisations in Australia, from Horse Racing to Rugby, organised by Mercer Australia.

We put to them the observation that when there is fraud in government, the actions are often labelled corruption, as they signify a greater social betrayal than a breach of the law. Fraud in the private sector doesn’t attract the same moral outrage and avoids the label of corruption. But there is one exception. Sport also uses the word corruption to describe fraudulent behaviour. We asked why.

The group started with the suggestion people take sport personally, as we all feel part of it and like we own it. We play it to pursue the best in us, we barrack for our team, our kids play it, and we use it as a tool to teach our children about values and what is important in life. We feel obliged to have an opinion about it, perhaps as Australians.

This is probably why people feel fraud in sport is a moral issue that goes beyond compliance with the law, a social ‘evil’ that the word ‘corruption’ better conveys. There was also the feeling that corruption is used because it reveals the interconnected network that comes with fraud in sport.

When asked about the dilemmas in sport more broadly, many spoke about the challenge players experience balancing their need to win and earn income, with their long-term wellbeing. Players often hide injuries to avoid being dropped from teams. These injuries are often physical, and sometimes mental. The period where an athlete is most successful financially is narrow. This creates pressure to sacrifice long-term health.

As HR professionals they also spoke of their dilemmas, when they need to balance advocacy for the individual player with the best interests of the company or business side of the sport. They spoke of this also in relation to the management of the team, when the coach feels the need to let someone play because their family is present, even though it may not be in the best interest of a win.

They spoke about how officials can overlook bad leadership when the characters themselves raise the winning morale of teams. Some spoke about the challenges of being considerate of a person’s background, but also being clear that it did not excuse bad behaviour such as sexual harassment.

We see related dilemmas in other sectors currently under the public spotlight. It is accepted that the unique relationship between sport and ethics has been neglected by philosophers.

There may be much to be learned by our experience of sport, and how its values are brought to the wider theatre of life. These discussions help us reach a better understanding about these relationships.